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Tom Chambers

Improbable Dreams

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Through photo montage I present unspoken stories which illustrate fleeting moments in time and which are intended to evoke a mood in the viewer. These mythical illustrations might address the fragility of childhood or the delicate transition experienced by a child passing into adolescence and then adulthood. Others express the tension in the uncertain coexistence between man and his environment, a delicate balance too often ignored and damaged. Each photo montage is carefully constructed, using both images that have been planned and those that unexpectedly enhance the story. With digital photography I desire to move beyond documentation of the present, and rather seek to fuse reality and fantasy in musing about possibilities of the future.

To create a photo montage I photograph each piece of the final image using a Nikon digital camera or a medium format film camera. The processed film is scanned at a high resolution, approximately 80 megabytes per frame. Then, I use Photoshop software with a Macintosh computer to combine the pieces, thus creating the final image. Lastly, this final image is printed with archival pigment inks on cotton rag paper.



Tom Chambers was raised in the Amish country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Following life altering experiences of military service during the Vietnam War and travel throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada, Tom completed a B.F.A. in 1985 from Ringling School of Art with an emphasis in graphic design and photography. Since 1998 Tom has devoted himself to photo montage for sharing intriguing unspoken stories about spirituality, personal identity, and co-existence.

Currently, Tom is represented by seven galleries in the United States and Spain. His work has been shown nationally and internationally in Spain and Colombia, as well as in a wide range of print and online publications. Tom has received recognition for his photo montages through a variety of awards, as well as fellowships from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.


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Tom Chambers


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

33 thoughts on “tom chambers – improbable dreams”

  1. I am not naturally drawn to fantasy as subject matter. However, I do appreciate the imagination shown in this work. It’s definitely not something I could do even half as well even if I were to put my mind to it. I think my favourite image is the first one. Quite often I feel the strong visual ideas and compositions are let down by the montage technique because it’s just not convincing enough. If it weren’t trying to be realistic, it wouldn’t matter. It must be frustrating to work this way. I like how you’ve tried to express “the tension in the uncertain coexistence between man and his environment” in pictures like the turtles and the bird on a leash and I feel you have captured that idea in those images.

  2. i have an IQ of about 10 in whatever part of the brain that deals with artistic concepts involving the fantastic or the subconscious dream state. So much of your essay eludes me. Most of it really. It is lush and beautifully crafted, i can say that. Complex photographic montages are very much part of the photography scene today and i can see from your resume that your work is duly respected. However I was born for a different photographic era so this sort of work eludes me. And i would not have commented at all because i have nothing to say..except, except..when i got to #15, i was struck because i encountered a situation exactly like that in real life.

    I was driving down a rutted dirt road whose destiny it was to become a 6-lane highway but at that point it was a garbage-strewn mess..horrible really and if it wasn´t for the potholes i would have made fast work of getting the hell outta there. Out of the corner of my eye i saw a large bird jump up from the ground, and then down, and then up. How strange. How unnatural. Then i saw that this wild thing was caught up in twine that anchored it firmly to some stinking bag of trash (and i do mean stinking). How long he´d been there without food and water i don´t know. Fortunately I keep a pocket knife in the car and got out and approached this wild thing who was panicked and aggresively tried to attack me. I had a moment to execute one carefully timed swipe with the knife before his beak would have sunk into my flesh. Suddenly, unbelievably for both of us, i´m sure, he was free and up and away and then gone. It was a moving moment for me. I forgot about the episode till i saw your photograph and so..i know that from whatever depths these images come to you must be powerful and strong and i am happy for you that you have found a means of expressing this overwhelmingly personal imagery.

    Right now we are in the middle of a thunderstorm with lightning flashes and thunder and heavy laden skies all around..not unlike the mood of some of your photos…and i will post this before we lose power..thank you for reminding me of a private and important moment. It is the most that i can say. Best of luck with your projects.


  3. Tom, your work sings within the deepest recesses of my being. I know that sounds goofy but there it is. You tap into something fantastic, yes, but also quite familiar. I wanted this essay to go on forever. Thank you for daring to tred off the beaten path. Is a book in the works? I sure hope so because I want to buy it.


  4. Here we go again… :))
    Some may recall that a single image by Tom was the first image posted on burn.
    There was much discussion about it. Perhaps we should just re-post that and call it a day? :))

    While I think Tom is GREAT at what he does I was actually more moved by Kathleen’s comment above than by Tom’s essay. Why? Because Kathleen was writing about a “real” moment in time (whatever that means.) An experience she actually had. This work never happened, will never happen. It’s pure fantasy which is valid as an art form but FOR ME images that are created in camera and reality based are much more meaningful. I’ve said it before and will say it again…REALITY IS INTERESTING ENOUGH!

    It’s like comparing a fictional drama to a documentary. To me they are two completely different art forms.
    I don’t think this should be considered photography, rather digital art or as Tom says, photo montage. Doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated and acknowledged. It’s great for what it is.

  5. four of five of those images are jaw-dropping amazing. whatever you want to call them: fantasy, fine art, conceptual, surrealist – they’re sharp, evocative, full of emotion. Bravo Chambers.

  6. fantastic. i actually looked through all of them :) yes, ill admit it…sometimes i dont…but in this case i did because i enjoyed them. nicely done. kudos on your photoshop skills.

  7. For my taste, there were a couple of strong compositions but, for the most part,
    I felt the majority were a little contrived.
    I think, maybe, it’s the fact that a number of the images have somewhat obvious, and
    at times, noticeable multiple lighting sourses.

    The few that worked for me had a mood as well as a more ‘believable’ lighting.

    For some reason, a few caused me to flashback and recall a couple of the fantasy sequences
    from the 70’s Led Zeppelin movie, “The Song Remains the Same”

  8. Tom,

    I have no problem at all considering this as ‘photography’. There is a lot to see here… I watched the essay 5 times through over a period of several hours before venturing to comment. In general I think you’ve done a terrific job in creating a series of surreal and evocative images. For me, the ones that are most effective tend to be the ones that are also the most ‘realistic’, in which the montage work is seemless enough to be almost convincing. I had problems with #9 and #11 especially because they look too much like assembled composites (the buffalo in 9, the fish in 11). #8 seems to be out of step with the rest of the series in terms of color, lighting, composition, etc. and I think the essay would be better with that one omitted. #17 bothers me because if you’ve ever actually started a fire this way you’d know that you get lots of smoke and very little flame… without the plume of smoke rising from the chest, it seems phony to me. But these are minor criticisms. I really liked #3,6,7,14,18, and 20. And the signature cover shot, #22, is stunningly brilliant in its moody evocativeness and sinister undercurrents. You are really on to something here, and I’m sorry that some of our die-hard photojournalist types apparently have a little trouble appreciating art that has nothing to do with documentary.

  9. Tom

    You are a brave guy. This is tough stuff to pull off without looking dorky and affected.

    Spectacular work. Beautifully done. Your skill and hard work is evident. Shades of Jerry Uelsmann {sorry, but the comparison is inevitable.}

    I appreciate your skill, and your vision. LOVE the cover shot.

    I’m not sure I’d like any of these on my wall, but would buy your book, or could see them as illustrations, like a book cover etc.

    As far as any deep meaningful messages, I’m afraid I’m not there. I view this work as strongly commercial {a good thing} and wish you well with it.

  10. each image
    has its own narrative…
    love your
    dress in muddy water
    snakes and birds….
    I wonder if you
    dreamt of this
    as a child?!
    or dream of now….

  11. Marvellous!!!

    Some of these images had me open-mouthed in admiration – others left me variously shocked, amused, frightened… All of these reactions are, of course, evoked by the way your images touch my ‘reality’…

    Well done,Tom. Excellent work on many levels.

  12. Tom – I love this work. On occasion the montage comes through slightly more obvious than other parts, but it does leave you to imagine what is montage and what isn’t. This work is that good.

    LaChapelle-esque except on the darker and more moody side – please take this as a major complement to your artistic work.

    Like others I viewed more than one, and in its entirety. I will also return to it.

    Congrats – a composition worthy of burn attention.


  13. I’m finding this kind of work tough to judge. Since my day job is all about manipulating image in Photoshop, I struggle to set aside my disbelief and simply enjoy the compositions. Little things like the lighting of the snake in #2, the perspective of the ground in #4, the fish floating on their side in #11 stick out like a sore thumb.

    That being said, I can appreciate the difficulty of the work done here, and many of them take your breath away. Number 8 and 15, for example, stopped me in my tracks. I found myself staring in amazement.

  14. This is the style of photography I often go dreaming about doing all the time, and I don’t mean the montage making, but the process of finding good locations, interesting characters and props and really put an effort into using creativity to make interesting photographs. It’s something about the feeling when you direct everything from start to end, from planning to editing, which is very thrilling. It’s 100% control. So yes, it’s good to see someone who is living out that dream and doing it right, it certainly evokes a mood. To me it’s a feeling between being awake and asleep.

    Many photoshop montage makers fall into the trap of pulling contrasts and colours in too extreme directions, but that’s not the case here. The only piece I’m struggling with is #9 where the sharpness look fake.

  15. I thought the title shot was beautiful. It’s the kind of stuff could easily be high end fashion advertising. Although I think these are well crafted images I would be interested to see if they hold up in larger printed material. Quite a few clashes of sharpening and colour curves bent off shape detract, I think from the ease at which the images are viewed. The subject matter for me is a kind of emotional pornography though, nice eye candy but the images and series leave me with nothing after the experience. In that way I view this as a work of fashion, and if that is the case I think it can be improved technically and there are many fine examples in the world of fashion. I think confusing it with soul searching ‘creative’ work will not do this project justice. Fashion feeds of art. To this Englishman with a stiff upper lip this seems to be trying to do it the other way around. But many people don’t seem to think so. Maybe this is a stereotypical English opinion. Keep pushing onwards!

  16. Is ‘straight’, unposed, ‘un-retouched’ photography fundamentally a medium of ‘choosing after the fact’, when you take what life gives you and edit it down and choose the picture that ‘says what you want to say best’? Shooting loose, not thinking too much…and then…editing…

    With painting, and ‘pictorial’ photography, do you ‘plan’ more, do you choose what you want to say, *before* doing the work? Do you need to have something to say *before* doing the work, or does it flow *from* the work, maybe building upon a *feeling*…

    Questions on a Thursday night after vino rosso and fernet branca…

  17. Have to reiterate all the positive comments made here. It’s brave stuff and seizes the attention, with so much going on Just the blending of themes of youth with autumnal environment, even before the actual stories start, is so well done and so much to be pursued. The work and drive that’s gone into this is so clear.
    Also have to reiterate some of the negative comments. The first run through is hypnotically powerful because it’s the ideas the drive it, but nobody is innocent of montage techniques and pretty quick we start playing spot the join… My least-favourites are the skyline in 5 and the window edge and like Brian sez, the perspective in 4. This is JUST because they are such powerfully conceived images otherwise. 4 is just great. Also, generally speaking, it’s so hard to pull off the look of anything seen through water… but what ya gonna do?… the theme of drowning is one of the compelling things here…
    You’re reaching so hard for forceful ideas that the conceptions, the stories, the ambition of the vision aren’t matched by this technique. “This guy should be painting,” I thought… but hell, who wants to do that? Image technique can be improved, one pixel at a time, if necessary, and visions can be toned down a little. I don’t mean realism, but… the second horse in 13 for instance is way too much of a reach.
    But hey, great going, congratulations on the galleries and hoping for all success to you.
    Also got to say it speaks strongly for folks who hate dogs :) The symbol of protector with a constant threat of betrayal and savagery…

  18. Tom..

    Your work is beautiful. Its artistic in a pre Raphalite way.. The difficulty for me is a more contemporary association, which are those high gloss adds one might find on the inside of high end magazines. This has nothing to do with you and your work but my association. I just wish I could get beyond it as I truly appreciate this whole other worldliness. I ‘ll certainly be checking out your web site..

  19. 2nd comment I need to say…

    So well done in getting all those original images.. They look great on there own..

    Would truly love to hear you talk about the things you needed to think about technically during these constructs and how much the original images inspired you within themselves..

  20. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments. Feedback is alway helpful.

    I’ve been making montages for approximately 15 years, exhibiting for 13. Of the images shown here, the square format and pano images were done sometime after 2006. Yes, I have done a number of illustrations and book covers, as digital photomontage works nicely with those types of projects. Some significant influences on my work are religious art (Mexican mostly) and magic realism literature.

    I’ll try too answer your question, Peter. I typically work by planning the whole image and sketching it loosely at first. However, the direction may change as I am shooting or in the construction process, and I may end up with a final image which is not related to the original idea. There are also occasions when I might use a particular photo as a starting point, and then add elements to it, thereby changing the context of the original photo.

    When shooting the different components of a final image, I consider direction and intensity of light, as well as perspective. The tone and saturation of color is not a consideration when shooting an image, but is handled later in the process of manipulation.

  21. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love those images, excellent vision, precise composition and imagination. I enjoyed it from very beginning to the end. However I do believe this should be and magazine focusing mostly on photojournalism and documentary !!! Correct me if I am wrong, but no matter how stunning this serie is I don’t think it follow basic rules of either of two journalism or documentary.
    Seems to me like now we will send the message out there ” yeah people go ahead and manipulate your images to create new reality and present it as something real, something that documents true reality”.
    As I said I like all the images, it’s stunning piece of work but would like to see it somewhere else not in this magazine.
    I do respect and always liked Alan’s taste when it come to selecting images, and I am trying to understand why is this in here, please help me with it :)

  22. I love your work. I don’t look at it trying to explain it…the work just stop me…I have to stay there for a while contamplating its beauty…they look like paintings.

  23. Thanks TOM..

    I sometimes do some double exposures in camera on 35mm neg colour.. When it works its such a pleasant surprise. I’ve not done it as much as I’d like but will pursue more. In camera on film my main concern is about picking subject that leaves somes open shadowed space and try and incorporate an overlay in to that corner.. Haven’t done enough to show successfully.

  24. Nice manipulations. People very often confuse photoshop manipulations with photography. It’s not photography and will never be, it just uses photographic material. Technically and philosophically it’s faraway from double exposures on film.

  25. hi tom,
    i’m new here; actually, i signed up to comment on your series. it is so refreshing to see work posted on this site that goes beyond documentation.

    i think the images that resonate the most strongly with me are the ones that catch the human figure in motion. for example, image #s: 1 & 22 make use of the figure as it moves through the frame. these present the idea of “fleeting” most strongly to me, and invite me to experience it in my own imagination, and more so than the images of moving animals…animals are always something “other”, i think.

    but i also love the use of animals, and people’s relationship to them. in some of these images, the animals seem to symbolize nature as something sort of antagonistic to human existence –the bird on a leash, for example. in other images, it feels like you use animals to symbolize the wild & unrefined kernel at the core of human existence.

    i should also mention that i love your use of LIGHT. and that i enlarged these images to occupy the entirety of my computer screen, and i just don’t see the problems other people see.

    i understand that none of these are documents, but the images here that appeal to me the least are the ones that look the most documentary, and the ones in which the subjects are aware of the camera.

    k, i guess that’s it from me. i have admired your work from afar for so long!!!

  26. Michael McGowan

    I love the ideas, but I feel like they suffer from the same thing that plagued the stop motion films of the 80’s, Lighting. It’s almost impossible to get accurate but the lighting is the only thing that distinguishes one photo from the other (inside of the montage).

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